Replacing underperforming protected areas achieves better conservation outcomes

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Protected areas vary enormously in their contribution to conserving biodiversity, and the inefficiency of protected area systems is widely acknowledged1, 2, 3. However, conservation plans focus overwhelmingly on adding new sites to current protected area estates4. Here we show that the conservation performance of a protected area system can be radically improved, without extra expenditure, by replacing a small number of protected areas with new ones that achieve more for conservation. Replacing the least cost-effective 1% of Australia’s 6,990 strictly protected areas could increase the number of vegetation types that have 15% or more of their original extent protected from 18 to 54, of a maximum possible of 58. Moreover, it increases markedly the area that can be protected, with no increase in overall spending. This new paradigm for protected area system expansion could yield huge improvements to global conservation at a time when competition for land is increasingly intense.

At a glance


  1. Cost effectiveness in Australia/'s protected areas.
    Figure 1: Cost effectiveness in Australia’s protected areas.

    The contribution of Australian protected areas to conserving vegetation types relative to their rarity (Bj) is positively related to the estimated cost of acquisition and management of the sites (Cj). However, there is a great deal of scatter in the cost effectiveness among the 6,990 protected areas; here the least cost-effective 1% of sites (70 protected areas) are denoted by crosses.

  2. Conservation outcomes delivered by protected area replacement.
    Figure 2: Conservation outcomes delivered by protected area replacement.

    a, Change in total area under protection. b, The number of vegetation types for which at least 15% of their pre-clearing extent are represented, as existing protected areas are progressively replaced with more efficient sites.


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Author information


  1. The Ecology Centre, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Richard A. Fuller,
    • Eve McDonald-Madden,
    • Kerrie A. Wilson,
    • Josie Carwardine,
    • Hedley S. Grantham,
    • James E. M. Watson,
    • Carissa J. Klein &
    • Hugh P. Possingham
  2. CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship and CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • Richard A. Fuller,
    • Eve McDonald-Madden &
    • Josie Carwardine
  3. Information Technology Services, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • David C. Green


All authors designed the research. E.M.-M., D.C.G. and R.A.F. performed the analysis, and R.A.F. wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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  1. Supplementary Information (167K)

    This file contains Supplementary Figures S1-S3 with legends, Supplementary Methods and References.


  1. Report this comment #11816

    Dan Faith said:

    False economy?

    We applaud the fact that Fuller et al. address the issue of inefficiency of existing protected areas (PA) networks, suggesting that protected areas expansion could do well if it moved away from considering existing PAs as fixed. In our own conservation planning work in Papua New Guinea (Faith et al., 2001; Pacific Conservation Biology) we found that, when we did not regard existing PAs as fixed, we could achieve our biodiversity representation goals at nearly 25% less cost.

    But we anticipate problems in selling the idea of de-gazetting PAs to achieve supposed greater efficiency. We all would probably agree that, unless all the relevant costs and constraints are on the table, these ?efficiency? analyses are largely academic exercises. That is a concern particularly with regard to measures of biodiversity (as in our PNG study). Fuller et al. use percent targets, which have some well-known weaknesses (most recently highlighted at a ?pre-COP meeting? : ). Without good information on biodiversity, these approaches can only efficiently pursue an inefficient solution. Surely, this provides no strong case for de-gazetting.

    But even if we had a good list of all species and good cost estimates, Fuller et al?s proposed method does _not _ provide a strong case for de-gazetting, because it is not an effective way to achieve efficiency. Their suggested ?radical approach? is to ?reverse the protection status of the least cost-effective sites?, and use that capital for new PAs. But that approach does not in general identify the set for de-gazetting that would result in greatest efficiency. The best set of PAs to remove depends on what is available for selection as new PA s. They ignore this.

    Suppose we have the following 5 existing protected areas (perhaps part of a larger set), with species designated by letters, followed by cost of the area. Species a ? f are unique to these listed PAs.

    1. [ab] 10

    2. [cd] 10

    3. [ef] 10

    4. [lmno] 15

    5. [pqrs] 15

    Outside the PAs, 7 species, t ? z, are not represented in any PAs, but are available in one or more other areas, for a total cost of 30 units. Many copies of species l ? s are available in these same areas. De-gazetting ?the least cost-effective sites´ implies removal of areas 1, 2, and 3. Each has a complementary benefit of 2 species and cost of 10 units. Spending the released capital of 30 units on new areas then picks up 7 new species, t ? z, for a total biodiversity score in the new PA set of 15 (species l ? z).

    The alternative approach (in the planning tools used in PNG and elsewhere) would recognise areas 4 and 5 as the best to remove, so that spending the same 30 units now means that new areas can pick up 7 new species, t ? z, and replace l ? s cheaply. Plus, we have retained species a ? f, for a total of 21 (species a ? f; l ? z). Efficiency is greater.

    The Fig 7a example in ?Faith (1995) Biodiversity and Regional Sustainability Analysis? : illustrates this kind of problem, in a trade-offs space. A set of protected areas (hollow square) allocated without looking at what might be added to that protected set constrains all possible additions to the set to result in solutions falling along a curve with relatively poor efficiency.

    Fuller et al.'s proposed strategy to ?reverse the protection status of the least cost-effective sites? perhaps could be modified to ?reverse the protection status of that set of sites that best takes advantage of properties of available new PAs ?. But, even with that improvement, de-gazetting will be a hard sell, given all the other factors that inevitably do not make it into these supposed ?efficiency? calculations.

    Dan Faith, the Australian Museum
    Kristen Williams, CSIRO

  2. Report this comment #11971

    Wayne Thogmartin said:

    This idea of 'degazetting' conserved areas in exchange for areas of greater biotic 'worth' is interesting. A concern I have is the means for determining worth. The authors have examined the current value of locations and posited an exchange, but in doing so devalue future worth from those relinquished sites. It may be prudent to include in our calculations potential future value of conserved lands in the face of a changing climate. If we are to build networks of conserved lands allowing adaptation to changing climate, currently undervalued lands may play a more prominent role in the future.

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